Guide To Chiang Rai And The Golden Triangle

Written by Team Expique
Published: April 7, 2021

Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northernmost province and a fascinating area to visit. If you’re planning to travel around this attractive region of North Thailand, Chiang Rai city is the ideal base for your adventures. The provincial capital is a city with historical sites, attractive temples, and a welcoming vibe. 

Located in the far north of the province, the Golden Triangle is one of Chiang Rai’s most famous attractions. Notorious in the past because of the opium trade, the Golden Triangle is the area where the borders of three countries converge: Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). The majority of tourists who travel to the Golden Triangle visit on a whistle-stop day trip. However, it’s worth spending more time here if you are flexible with your itinerary.

Take a look at our suggestions below for what to do in Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. 

Things To Do In And Around Chiang Rai City 

Spend at least a few days in the amiable provincial capital to soak up the history and culture before heading out into rural Chiang Rai. The city of Chiang Rai is relatively compact and a number of the main attractions can be reached on foot from the city centre. However, some of the things to do listed here (e.g. White Temple, Black House, and Singha Park) are located outside the main city and will require a short journey by bus or taxi to get there. 

Night Bazaar 

The entrance to Chiang Rai Night Bazaar

The centrally located Night Bazaar is the perfect place to start or finish your evening. Fill up on Thai food, enjoy a cold drink and relax to the sound of live music. Shopaholics can get their fix here too with the market selling lots of locally produced items. 

Golden Clocktower 

A short walk away from the Night Bazaar, the golden-coloured clocktower is one of Chiang Rai’s quirkier attractions. Designed by the same artist who constructed the White Temple, the clocktower hosts a mini light and sound show each evening. 

Visit historic temples 

Understandably, a lot of visitors to Chiang Rai are keen to see the much-publicised White Temple and Blue Temple. While they are both must-sees when visiting Chiang Rai, there are a number of historic temples that shouldn’t be overlooked. In particular, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phra Kaew. The latter once housed the famous Emerald Buddha statue which now resides in the temple of the same name in Bangkok. 

White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)

One of the most unusual and spectacular attractions in North Thailand, Wat Rong Khun is part temple, part art gallery. The contemporary murals inside are not what you might expect and there are plenty of thought-provoking scenes both inside and outside the temple. This includes lots of subtle and not-so-subtle references to life, death and human suffering. Most of Wat Rong Khun is decorated in dazzling white, but gold-coloured buildings — including the elaborate toilet block — provide a striking contrast. 

Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seua Ten) 

Main buddha at Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seua Ten)

Closer to the centre of Chiang Rai city, Wat Rong Seua Ten (aka the Blue Temple) is another colourful attraction. Unlike the White Temple, there are resident monks here and despite the unusual artwork and decorations, it is more akin to a traditional Thai wat. 

Wat Huay Pla Klang 

Night view of Wat Huay Pla Klang

Another modern temple worth seeking out, Wat Huay Pla Klang features a huge statue of Kuan Im (the Goddess of Mercy). Standing at 80 metres high, visitors can climb the stairs inside the statue to enjoy the views. 

Black House (Baan Dam) 

Baan Dam (Black Museum) near Chiang Rai)

Baan Dam is an eclectic collection of buildings. This isn’t a temple, but instead is part art gallery and part art museum. Baan Dam is the creation of a famous Chiang Rai artist, Thawan Duchanee, who uses the themes of death and suffering in much of his work. Baan Dam is a fascinating place to visit, but some of the artwork can make for uncomfortable viewing.  

Singha Park 

Singha Park near Chiang Rai

Singha Park is a large open space located close to Wat Rong Khun. Areas of the park are a working farm with orchards and tea plantations. Hire bicycles to ride around the trails or jump aboard the hop-on-hop-off bus to enjoy the views and fresh air. 

Eat at the beach 

It might not be the most beautiful spot in Chiang Rai, but the ‘beach’ that locals have jokingly dubbed ‘Pattaya Noi’ does have a certain charm. During the dry season months, the water level of the Mae Kok River drops and exposes a shoreline of stone, sand and mud. Enterprising food vendors set up stalls and bamboo salas provide shade. Definitely a fun way to spend an afternoon mixing with locals and enjoying the relaxed riverside vibe. 

Watch a football match 

Chiang Rai is home to one of the best football teams in Thailand. Chiang Rai United finished top of Thai League 1 in 2019 and their well-appointed stadium close to Chiang Rai airport is a good venue to take in a football match during your travels in Thailand. Look out for fixtures on the Chiang Rai United website

Visit the Hill-Tribe Museum 

If you’re intending to go trekking in the mountains or want to learn more about local culture, visit the Hill-Tribe Museum. Informative displays help explain about the different communities who live in the mountains of Chiang Rai. Local experts at the museum can also assist with advice on booking treks. 

Things To Do In Chiang Rai Province 

From Chiang Rai city, venture out into the mountains and countryside to appreciate the natural beauty of this northern province. 

Trekking and hill-tribe culture 

Trekking and visiting hill-tribe communities is one of the most popular tourist activities in Chiang Rai province. If you intend to do this we advise travelling responsibly. Use the services of a reputable local guide who will help ensure your visit is culturally sensitive. Different communities live in Chiang Rai including Akha, Karen and Lisu. They all have their own culture and language and you will need a local guide to assist you. 

Doi Tung and Mae Fah Luang Gardens 

Mae Fah Luang Gardens at Doi Tung

The mountain at Doi Tung has royal connections. In particular, the area is closely associated with HRH Princess Srinagarindra, the mother of King Rama IX. The Thai royal built a royal villa here and championed the cause of the hill-tribe communities in the region. 

Mae Fah Luang Gardens are a delightful place to walk around and enjoy the cooler mountain air and views. Visit the informative Hall of Inspiration at Doi Tung to learn more about the positive work that has been done here. And if you visit in December or January, look out for the annual Colours of Doi Tung Festival which celebrates hill-tribe culture. 

Mae Salong (Santikhiri) 

Mae Salong in Northern Thailand

Mae Salong is famous for its mountainside tea plantations. Situated in the north-west corner of Chiang Rai province, this area has an interesting history. Following the Chinese Civil War in the 1950s, soldiers from the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) sought refuge in nearby countries including Burma and Thailand. 

At this time, the Mae Salong area was renowned for the growing of opium poppies. Many of the Chinese soldiers became involved in the lucrative drug trade. The Thai authorities brokered an agreement with the fighters that led to the soldiers being granted residence rights and tea replacing opium as the main crop. Mae Salong village was renamed Santikhiri, the ‘Hill of Peace’. Descendants of the former fighters still live in Santikhiri and the village retains its Chinese identity. 

Phu Chi Fah 

Morning fog at Phu Chi Fah - near Chiang Riai

The viewpoint at Phu Chi Fah isn’t easy to reach without your own transport, but it does provide spectacular views of the morning mist below. Located high above sea level, temperatures are cold at night so wrap up warm if you do travel here. 

Cycling on the quiet roads of Chiang Rai 

If you’re a keen cyclist there are some excellent routes in Chiang Rai. They vary in difficulty with the more genteel trips taking you along quiet country roads. Experienced riders can also enjoy the challenge of multi-day trips that take you through the mountains and the Golden Triangle area. Take a look at what’s available from Chiang Rai Bicycle Tours and Spice Roads

Things To Do In And Around The Golden Triangle 

In the northernmost part of Chiang Rai province near the small town of Ban Sop Ruak, the borders of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos meet at the Golden Triangle. This scenic corner of Chiang Rai is where the Mekong River and Ruak River converge to form a natural boundary between Thailand and her neighbours. It’s possible to visit the Golden Triangle on a day tour from Chiang Rai city. However, if your itinerary allows, it’s worth spending a few nights here. 

Golden Triangle viewpoint and park

Signpost at The Golden Triangle

From the viewpoint you can admire the scenery and see the rivers converging to form the border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. In this area you can also visit a small park and see different monuments including a large golden-coloured Buddha image sitting in a boat. 

Temples in Sop Ruak 

Wat Phra That Pu Khao

For impressive views over the Mekong River and Golden Triangle, climb the staircase to the viewing platform at Wat Phra That Pu Khao. Another temple worth visiting is Wat Sop Ruak. Set back from the river, this impressive white-coloured temple has been renovated in recent years and makes for an interesting visit.[Text Wrapping Break] 

Opium museums 

Hall of Opium Museum in The Golden Triangle

The history of the Golden Triangle is intrinsically linked to opium. To find out more on how and why the drug trade flourished in this border region, visit the educational Hall of Opium. There is also another, smaller museum a couple of kilometres away in Sop Ruak town. The House of Opium is privately owned and is situated in a convenient location close to the Golden Triangle Viewpoint. 

Boat trips 

Arrange a boat trip along the Mekong River at Sop Ruak or Chiang Saen. A quick visit to the island and market at Don Sao, (which belongs to Laos) can also be arranged.  

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation 

The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) helps support the welfare of captive elephants. The organisation is located at, and supported by, the Anantara Golden Triangle and Four Seasons Tented Camp. 

Chiang Saen 

View of Chiang Saen

The charming and historic riverside town of Chiang Saen is an excellent base to explore the Golden Triangle region. There is more to do here than nearby Sop Ruak and the town sees fewer tourists compared to Sop Ruak. 

Chiang Saen is thought to date back to the 7th century. Visit the Chiang Saen National Museum to discover more about the history of this ancient kingdom. Throughout the town and outskirts you can see atmospheric chedis and temple ruins. Sites of particular note include Wat Phrathat Chedi Luang near the National Museum and Wat Pa Sak. 

Food In Chiang Rai  

You’ll find all the usual Northern Thai food favourites in Chiang Rai. Khao soi, sai oua, khanom jeen nam ngiaw and lots more regional dishes are all easy to find. 

In Chiang Rai city, the Night Bazaar is a good starting point for foodies. Worth seeking out too is Lab Sanam Keela which is widely regarded by locals and visiting foodies as one of the best dining venues in Chiang Rai. And if you’re visiting the Blue Temple, make a short detour to the convivial Chivit Thamma Da

Travel To Chiang Rai 

The international airport at Chiang Rai (CEI) is situated a 10-minute taxi ride away from the centre of Chiang Rai city. Flight time from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK) and Bangkok Don Mueang (DMK) is around 1.5 hours. 

Chiang Rai is approximately three hours drive away from Chiang Mai. The Green Bus company runs frequent services between the two cities using comfortable buses. Green Bus also runs services connecting Chiang Rai with other destinations in North Thailand including Lampang, Nan, Phrae and Phayao. 

Travel To The Golden Triangle 

Day trips to the Golden Triangle can be arranged from tour offices in Chiang Rai city. Car rental is also available including an option to hire a driver to do the driving for you. This can be arranged through your hotel or local tour companies in Chiang Rai. 

Using public transport you can take the Green Bus minivan which departs at regular intervals throughout the day from the Chiang Rai Bus Terminal near the Night Bazaar. The route goes via Chiang Saen and takes just over an hour to reach Sop Ruak. 

If you find yourself in the border town of Mae Sai, you can take a local shared songthaew for the 45-minute journey to Sop Ruak. The Green Bus company also runs services from Mae Sai bus station to Chiang Rai. 

Read More About Northern Thailand

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